It might be a bit odd for me to be telling you as a writer that you need to stop thinking. One of the few privileges you get as a person setting off on such a journey is the ability to look thoughtful; elbow on table and face in hand, staring at the light dancing in the trees. Stroking your beard now and then, if you have one (and in my opinion if you can have one, you should have one. I have crushing beard envy. Yes, I know that’s weird.) If you’re a writer, people expect you to think. It is the perfect excuse for being that person in the office who has five hundred and ninety origami kranes folded and scattered about their desk, the one who’s always staring at the elevator buttons as though reading them for some hidden code, the one who’s always in the dark on the balcony at the office Christmas party, champagned, quiet. Being a big thinker is ok, but sometimes thinking big can ruin everything. Let me demonstrate.
I’ve only been a runner for a few months. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, though: I like the idea of it, the animalistic nature of an early-morning jog into the mist, a slice of ocean now and then glittering between the apartment blocks, alluring. I got the idea that I might like to be a runner when my marriage died, the curtains of that heady illusion suddenly fallen all around in artistic splashes of red velvet and me, unloved me, in all my ok-shaped-but-honestly-kinda-flabby-and-definetely-badly-dressed glory, revealed. I thought running would not only give me confidence and my body back but it’s a very measurable goal and I could judge myself by it, reward myself by it, compare myself to others by it (Beginning to see the problems?). I started going to the gym and running on the treadmill and fiddling with the speed and the incline and the fan and trying not to throw up and after a while I thought I was good enough to take it to the streets.
I got into my tights one morning, pulled on my shoes, hooked up my music, opened my front door and looked down the street.
Jesus, I thought. That’s a long goddamn street.
I figured 5km was a good goal to head toward, so I started bouncing along. My GPS told me that the end of the street was two hundred metres from my house. I was already struggling. Sweat was tickling in my hair, and my calves started itching, so now and then ducking to swipe at my calves, now and then plastering my hair back from my face, and all the time panting like a shot ox, I got about eight hundred metres into the run and slowed to a walk. On the morning of the next planned run, two days later, I lay in bed for a good twenty minutes just hating the assignment I’d set myself. I thought about places I knew that were approximately 5km away. They seemed like foreign lands. It would take me years, I decided, to be able to get to 5km and I probably wasn’t going to enjoy the journey in any case. Runners lead joyless lives. All they eat is buckwheat, whatever the hell that is, and polenta, and their knees and hips go by thirty if they don’t get hit by a truck, and their friends hate them secretly, the way I’ve secretly hated plenty of runner friends for their success at it. People are born runners. Long-legged types wearing bum bags and massaging their hamstrings outside cafes filled with colourful cyclists, talking about gel insteps and Deep Heat and the Sydney half-kay and beep tests you can download to your phone.
Stupid runners. I rolled over in bed. They’re wasting their time.
It’s possible, and surprisingly easy, to think your way completely out of anything you might want to do that is even slightly uncomfortable. And sitting down over the space of a year or more and writing a novel is the perfect example of something you can over-think and talk yourself out of in no more than a couple of sentences. Ninety thousand words? All of them completely original, appealing, interesting, grammatically correct, plausible, believable, entertaining, publishable? Ten thousand hours to master the craft? All of them alone, completely alone, nothing but novelty coffee mug and Microsoft Word and blinking cursor and oblivion-spelling empty page… Nothing but experience, imagination, desire, instinct, to guide you? Are you nuts? Do you have any idea how long it takes just to get an initial sparkle of inspiration into a narrative structure? To formulate characters, give them environments, upbringings, baggage, idiosyncrasies, hairstyles, cars, pets, jobs, habits, attitudes, accents, sexual fetishes, to get this cast together, to make them do something that strangers would be compelled to read about? Do you have any idea how many edits a manuscript needs before it’s even of submittable standard? Do you know how many full-length novels the average writer writes before they hit on a winner?
Let’s just stay in bed. It’s warm here.
Writing a novel is like the longest run you’ve ever been on in your life. You can sit there before you even begin with your elbow on the table and face in hand, possible beard action, and imagine how bad it’s going to be. Those first sweaty, stumbling, uncertain pages, the discomfort of finding a rhythm, the shock of wind that hits you now and then as you rise over a crest and realise how far you are from home, what’s before you. Like running, writing is lonely; no one will know you did or didn’t do it today, whether you did well at it at all, whether you failed and stayed in bed, whether you wrote something that you’ll have to scrap tomorrow, time wasted. Before you even open a document, you can open your browser and read about publishing houses tumbling to the earth and writers losing their contracts and editors sifting through thousands of manuscripts a year, giving them a page to impress, a single page, tossing them over their shoulder into the burn heap.
If you didn’t think about all that, though, what might happen? What if you thought of nothing beyond this word. This one. This line of text. What if one idea just crept into the next, and there was no need for an idea beyond what you have in your hands, a man in a room, a man with a gun, a man with a plan. Whatever it is. Plenty of writers talk about the need for structure, planning, big picture schemes, PostIt notes on cork boards, roads mapped out, GPS hooked up, progress measured and chapters outlined. But what if all you needed, in fact, was momentum. Slow at first. Gathering speed. Not a thought spared for the distance left until finish. Just the pure dedication to this moment, and the action of writing, or running, and the will in this moment not to stop.
I implore you to forget about the journey for a minute, because it will be long, and hard, and windy, and painful, and you’ll want to stop at the half way mark. You’ll want to stop ten minutes from now. You’ll doubt yourself. You’ll tell yourself you weren’t born for this. You’ll hate the people sailing past you, watch them disappear over the rise ahead. All of that’s to come, oh yes, I can’t tell you that it isn’t. But what if you just didn’t think about it. What if you just stopped thinking all together.
I ran 8km this morning. Easy.
Happy writing, everybody.